Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Recent Watches: Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg has a reputation for making films that go for the heart in the sloppiest, most overhanded ways. He makes tear-jerkers and crowd pleasers. This is somewhat unfair, since some of his earlier, best films are actually rather emotionally subtle. “Jaws” uses visual subtly to convey big thrills. “The Sugarland Express” is a muted, light comedy. Not “Lincoln.” “Lincoln” is a Big Movie, about Big History, starring Big Actors, giving Big Emotional Speeches about Big Subjects, while in Big Sets, accompanied by Big Musical Scores, winning Big Awards.

Despite this, I liked the movie. I’m angry I liked the movie. It would have been easy to burst the movie’s bubble, deflate its Oscar-season pretensions. But, then again, how could the film be anything but compelling with the cast and crew it has? Criticized Spielberg all you want for his naked ambitions, his movies are never anything less then watchable. It’s certainly not a great film but it’s a solidly entertaining, one hundred percent professional one. If there was any doubt before about the movie sweeping the Academy Awards, there certainly isn’t any now.

“Zero Dark Thirty” conceptualized recent history into easily digestible movie cliché language. “Lincoln” does something similar by presenting a character steadfastly devoted to one goal. Abraham Lincoln is obsessed with ending slavery. He is convinced that getting slavery outlawed will end the Civil War. He knows he’s facing an uphill battle, against the social opinions of the time and, primarily, against a senate soundly against the bill. Lincoln makes some unlikely allies, including a radical abolitionist and a pair of shysters that more-or-less bribe the opposition into agreeing with him. The Civil War provides the context for the story but its backbone is provided by the president’s undying desire to abolish the most odious of institutions. The climax takes place in the stone walls of Washington, not the bloody battlefields of the south. The film blatantly makes it a personal goal, as his wife and oldest son challenge his obsession.

(Going by my theory that Academy nominated films are just as much about the present as they are about their subjects, would it be going too far to say “Lincoln” mirrors our current president’s attempt to push change forward despite a political climate fighting him every step of the way? Maybe.)

Considering history is innately a weighty, complicated subject full of lost, complex detail, maybe it makes sense to simplify things into easily grasped terms, even if it perhaps does a disservice to history. The movie attempts to humanize Lincoln while still keeping him a larger-then-life icon. As played by Daniel Day Lewis, Abe is fond of long-winded, meandering anecdotes. He blatantly placates his political aides and enemies with long-winded stories, sometimes only partially related to the topic at hand. When not doing this, the president makes a couple of from-the-heart, full of blood and vigor speeches. The humanizing attempts come from delving into the man’s personal life. His wife frequently disagrees with him, crying about the son they’ve already lost, and begging not to loose the ones they still have. (It shames me a bit to say this but Sally Field’s performance as the first lady is undeniably the heart and soul of the film. This is most evident in the powerful scene where Fields quite literally falls to her knees and begs her husband to reconsider.) Lincoln also has some problems with his oldest son, played by a mustached Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt budges against the path his parents have laid out for him, wanting to make a difference now, wanting to fight on the war fields. Dad is soundly against this but can’t make Son change his mind. (Another powerful moment comes when Levitt sees the cost of war firsthand, in the form of a pit full of amputated arms and legs.) Day Lewis, sticking with the breathy, high pitched, supposedly historically accurate voice, commits his usual method actor intensity to the part. Only some of this is visible on-screen though. I’m certain Lewis lived and breathed Abe during the months before, during, and after production, but the part doesn’t allow for the same reaching-for-the-heavens intensity of a Daniel Plainview. There’s still pretty much zero doubt in my mind that he’s going to win.

Spielberg pack the supporting roles with seasoned, solid character actors. Tommy Lee Jones rarely finds a character better suited for his established cantankerous old man bit then in the role of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Unlike Lincoln, who has to hide away his most passionate beliefs for the sake of political grace, Stevens long ago gave up on winning anyone over. He believes full-heartedly in ending slavery and doesn’t give a shit if it offends a bunch of obnoxious racists. Perfectly cast, Jones goes for it, displaying all the comic snark and full-hearted grumpiness that has, occasionally, made him one of our best character actors. The film probably would have been more interesting if it had been about him. That also would have prevented the last-minute reveal that overly simplifies and maybe even trivializes his passionate beliefs. Also of note is a bloated James Spader, putting his slimy talents to good use, Lee Pace as the film’s defacto villain, and a very old Hal Holbrook.

Spielberg’s direction is as elegant as you’d expect, shooting through a polished wood and silver colored frame. He never impresses but, considering most of the movie is devoted to Old American Men Talking in Rooms, I guess it’s good work anyway. The ending, which shows the world morning for Lincoln's loss, is mostly unnecessary and doesn't provide much as far as resolution goes. “Lincoln” is far from a great film. While it reaches for the emotional gut-punching of the director’s most resonant films, it instead falls to the lesser, though maybe no less impressive goal, of being fully satisfying. If that doesn’t scream Best Picture, I don’t know what does. [7/10]

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